India's failure of Olympic proportions
By Neeta Lal
DELHI - As India limbers up for the world's greatest sports spectacle - the
Summer Olympic Games which open in Beijing on Friday - the pressing question
going around Delhi is whether Indian athletes will be able to bring home medals
this year. Or will they repeat their debacle in Athens 2004 where they managed
an embarrassing total of a single silver medal?
Well, the auguries don't look too good. For one, a nation of a billion-plus
people - the world's most populous democracy - has dispatched a small squad of
57 athletes (and 42 officials) to the Games. In other words, with a total of 28
sports and 302 events to compete in, only a meager 57 Indians athletes are
Contrast this with the United States, which marches into Beijing
with a powerhouse contingent of 596 athletes. China has 639 and even tiny
Estonia has 47 representatives. In terms of the total Olympic medal tallied,
India ranks even behind Nigeria, a country whose economy is one-twentieth of
Since India started participating in the Games in 1900, it has managed only 17
medals and only 12 since its independence in 1947. Even this abysmal tally is
skewed, as the bulk of the medals (11) have been won in field hockey a team
sport for which India didn't qualify this year.
Most disquieting for Indian sport lovers this year is not the tiny squad, not
even the past dismal record, but the glaring omission of India's national sport
- hockey - from the Olympic contingent. This is all the more hurtful
considering this is the first time that the Indian hockey team has ever failed
Why does India perform so poorly at the Olympics? Why does a nation that awes
the world with its IT prowess, its spectacular economic growth trajectory and
its ever expanding list of billionaires, score so dismally in global sports?
For one, India's annual budget for sports is too meager. This year's US$280
million worth of funding is overshadowed by international standards. For
example, China's - one of India's biggest rivals - has earmarked $2 billion for
this year's Games.
About half the money from India's outlay will be channeled towards
administrative expenses and the salaries of officials and bureaucrats. In other
words, much of it will be gobbled up in administrative expense rather than the
crucial training of athletes. The few international star athletes which India
has produced (Sania Mirza, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi in tennis and
Vishwanathan Anand in chess, to name a few) have succeeded in spite - not
because of - the nation's sports administration systems.
Given India's low sports budget and an all-pervasive bureaucratic insensitivity
towards sports, fans can hardly expect glittering medals. Instead they're left
with sub-par training camps, inferior coaches and low-standard sports
infrastructure. It should be no surprise then that the National Institute of
Sports (Patiala) - the "training ground" for most Indian Olympic athletes -
functions without such basics as a physiologist, psychologist or nutritionist.
"A long-term national sports strategy is vital for success in the Olympics
which India sorely lacks," says K P Gaekwad, a former national-level athlete,
who now runs his own training academy. "In India, intensive training of
selected Olympians begins a few months before the start of the Games. In this
last-minute scramble, athletes are sent abroad and foreign coaches hired. Is
this any way to win Olympic gold?"
This appears all the more unfortunate considering that in recent years, global
sport has gone spectacularly hi-tech and involves ultra-sophisticated training
equipment, well-qualified coaches, nutritionists, therapists and medical
experts who can calibrate an athlete's performance to a nano-second.
But perhaps what is most responsible for India's pathetic performance at the
Olympics is the lack of a strong and vibrant sports culture. Sports education -
which ought to be an integral part of school and college curriculum - is sorely
missing. This is largely because of the mindsets of Indian parents and teachers
who accord little importance to sports education and excellence. They are more
interested in scoring high marks in academics. To a degree this is
understandable, given the cutthroat competition in India to get into good
educational institutes, but it often undermines a student's athletic potential.
A majority of government-financed schools, which enroll 80% of Indian students,
rarely offer any physical education or development. According to a 1999 Public
Report on Basic Education, 48% of government schools in India don't possess a
As the report puts it, "The school buildings are usually bare, often
dilapidated and even filthy. No teaching aids are used and the child may not
even have a textbook. There is no craftwork or color or music; physical
activity is rare ... Very few schools have any activity in the nature of
Apart from ossified mindsets and abysmal infrastructure, India's Olympic
disaster can be attributed to the lack of a system for discovering and
nurturing talented youth. The country has no long-term strategy to encourage
sports education in schools or colleges. The government has done little to
develop athletic facilities or invite world-class trainers and sports managers
to provide sporting clinics. For a prime example, India need look no further
than China, which has rapidly become an Olympic superpower thanks to a rigorous
and extensive sports system.
Many feel that the first step for India would be to loosen the tight control of
politicians, bureaucrats and administrators over the country's numerous sports
associations - at the Athens Games in 2004, 227 officials accompanied 75
According to A K Qazi, formerly with the Sports Authority of India, Indian
sports associations are infested with politicians and retired bureaucrats. "And
since top-level positions in most associations are honorary these people are
not accountable to anyone which gives them the license to go about their work
in the most unprofessional way," said Qazi.
However, since these positions offer official perquisites such as complimentary
travel, spiffy hotel accommodation, daily allowances and foreign junkets, these
retirees are most unwilling to let go of them.
It seems clear that if India is to produce internationally competitive
athletes, it has to start training a larger number of youth and train them
correctly. This requires the sustained promotion of athletic activity in
schools and colleges. It also requires a change in attitude for parents and
educators. Qazi believes sports organizations should be managed by dynamic
After all, China's emergence as an Olympic superpower is due to an excellent
sports network that ensures that the government funding goes to the development
of Olympic prospects.
India has much to learn before it can impress the world with its sporting
prowess. But this is the realm of sport where, as they say, "hope springs
eternal". Perhaps it won't be too far into the future when this high-potential
nation - with the world's largest population of youth - will begin to produce
gold medals and Olympic champions.
Neeta Lal is a widely published writer/commentator who contributes to
many reputed national and international print and Internet publications.